The Tribune of Nova Scotia
Chapter III. The Old Colonial System


To understand the system of government which Howe assailed, we must go back to the very origin of the British colonies. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries an exaggerated importance was attached to money as such. A dollar’s worth of gold or silver was held to be of more value than a dollar’s worth of grain or timber; not merely more convenient, or more portable, or more easily exchangeable, but absolutely of more value. A country was supposed to be rich in proportion to the amount of money or bullion which it possessed. At first the only colonies prized were those which, like the Spanish, sent bullion to the mother country. Later on, when it was found that bullion need not be brought directly into a country, but might come in the course of trade, this exaggerated belief in money compelled the mother country so to regulate the trade of the colonies as to increase her stores of bullion. To keep as much money as possible within the Empire the colonies were compelled to buy their manufactures in the mother country, and as far as possible to restrict their productions to such raw materials as she herself could not produce, and which she would otherwise be compelled to buy from the foreigner. In carrying out this policy the mother country did her best to be fair ; the relation was not so much selfish as maternal. If the colonies were restricted in some ways, they were encouraged in others. If, for example, Virginia was forbidden manufactures, her tobacco was admitted into Great Britain at a lower rate of duty than that of Spain or other foreign countries, and tobacco-growing in England was forbidden altogether.

This system, which was embodied in a series of Acts known as Acts of Trade, or Navigation Acts, did not, in the state of development they had reached, hurt the colonies. In some ways it was actually of advantage to them. A new country, with cheap land and dear labour, must always devote itself mainly to the production of raw materials, and to many of these colonial raw materials Great Britain gave a preference or bounties. At the same time, as was only natural, the tendency was for the colonies to look on the advantages as no more than their due, and on the restrictions as selfish and unjustifiable.

Though attempting thus to regulate the economic development of the colonies, the mother country paid little attention to their political growth. There was indeed in each colony a governor, sent out from England, and a Council, which was supposed to help him in legislation and in government; but more and more power passed, with but little resistance from Great Britain, into the hands of an Assembly elected by the people of the colony. As one Loyalist wrote of them, the Assembly soon discovered 'that themselves were the substance, and the Governor and Board of Council were shadows in their political frame.’

At the American Revolution the revolutionary leaders were, in the main, men of the people, trained in political arts and eloquence in these local assemblies ; their complaints against the mother country were, in part at least, against her restrictive colonial system. Hence, after the winning of American independence, when the mother country endeavoured to draw lessons from her defeat, it appeared to her statesmen that the colonies had been lost through too much political democracy in them and too much economic control by her. Thus after the Revolution we find a series of favours given to colonial trade. The timber trade and the shipbuilding of Nova Scotia were aided by bounties and preferential duties. Her commerce was still largely with Great Britain, where she purchased manufactured articles, though even here certain concessions were made; but so important were the favours considered that not even Howe thought the control a grievance, and when in 1846-49 Great Britain inaugurated free trade and put the colonies upon their own feet, Nova Scotians, while not despairing as openly as did the people of Montreal, yet thought it a very great blow indeed.

While conferring these favours, Great Britain exercised a growing control over Nova Scotian political affairs. The Assembly, granted in 1758, was indeed retained, but a restraining hand was kept on it by the Colonial Office in London, through the governor and the Council. An attempt was made to combine representative and irresponsible government. The House of Assembly might talk, and raise money, but it did not control the expenditure, the patronage, or the administration, and it could neither make nor unmake the ministry. The more important House was the Council, which consisted of twelve gentlemen appointed by the king, and holding their offices practically fo/ life. This body was at once the Upper House of the Legislature, corresponding to our present Senate, and the Executive ov Cabinet. It was also to a certain extent a judicial body, being the Supreme Court of Divorce for the province. It sat with closed doors, admitting no responsibility to the people. Yet no bill could pass but by its consent. It discharged all the functions of government; all patronage was vested in it. It might do these things ill; its administration might be condemned by every one of the representatives of the people; but its authority remained unaffected.

In this Council sat the heads of departments, as they do in our modern Cabinet. They were appointed in and by Great Britain, and helped to control the commercial policy. Another member was the bishop of the Anglican Church, for the seemly ceremonies and graded orders of clergy of this body were deemed to be a counterpoise to popular vagaries and vulgarity. Prior to the American Revolutionary War there had been no colonial bishopric; three years after its close the first bishop of Nova Scotia was appointed.

Owing to the favour shown to this Church, education long remained almost entirely in its hands, and to the political struggle an element of religious bitterness was added. King’s College at Windsor, at first the only institution of higher learning in the province, was not open to any person who should frequent the Romish mass, or the meeting houses of Presbyterians, Baptists, or Methodists, or the conventicles or places of worship of any other dissenters from the Church of England, or where divine service shall not be performed according to the liturgy of the Church of England.’ It is true that the Church enjoyed no rights which she did not at the time enjoy in England, and that King’s College was less illiberal than were the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; but the circumstances were widely different. In England the Anglicans comprised the bulk of the people, and almost the whole of the cultivated and leisured classes; in Nova Scotia they were in the minority. Yet when, in 1820 and again in 1838, an attempt was made to found Dalhousie College at Halifax on a more liberal basis, the opposition of the Church of England led to the failure of the scheme.

In the Council the chief justice had a seat. As a member of the Legislature he made the law ; as one of the Executive he administered the law ; and as judge he interpreted the law.

But the most potent element in the Council was for some time the bankers. Early in the nineteenth century, when there was no bank in the province, the government had issued notes, for the redemption of which the revenues of the province were pledged. In 1825 some of the more important merchants founded a bank, and issued notes payable in gold, silver, or provincial paper. The Halifax Banking Company, as this institution was called, was simply a private company, with no charter from the province, and that it was allowed to issue notes is an instance of the easy-going ways of those early days. No less than five of its partners were members of the Council. Thus the state of affairs for some years was that there was but one bank in the province, that its notes were redeemable in provincial paper, and that the Council was largely composed of its directors, who could order the province to print as much paper as they wished!

The Halifax Banking Company was of great benefit to the provincial merchants, and, though its partners made large profits, there is no proof that they abused their position on the Council to aid them in business. But the general feeling in the province was one of suspicion, and the combination of financial and legislative monopoly was certainly dangerous. Soon some other citizens endeavoured to found another bank and to have it regularly incorporated by provincial charter, with the proviso that all paper money issued by it should be redeemable in coin. The directors of the Halifax Banking Company fought this proposal fiercely, both in business circles and in the Council, arguing that as the balance of trade was against Nova Scotia, there would rarely be enough ‘hard money’ in the province to redeem the notes outstanding. In 1832, however, popular clamour forced the legislature to grant its charter to the second bank, the Bank of Nova Scotia. The Halifax Banking Company1 also continued to do a flourishing business, and during the struggle of Howe and his fellow-reformers against the Council, the influence of its partners was one of the chief causes of complaint.

Thus the Council comprised the leaders in Church and State, among them the chief lawyers and business men. These formed the ‘Society’ of Halifax, and to them were added the government officials, who were usually appointed from England. Some of the latter were men of honour and energy, but others were mere placemen in need of a job. When the famous Countess of Blessington wished to aid one of her impecunious Irish relations, she had only to give a smile and a few soft words to the Duke of Wellington, and her scapegrace brother found himself quartered for life upon the revenues of Nova Scotia. Charles Buller, in his pamphlet Mr Mother Country of the Colonial Office, hardly exaggerated when he said that ‘ the patronage of the Colonial Office is the prey of every hungry department of our government. On it the Horse Guards quarters its worn-out general officers as governors ; the Admiralty cribs its share ; and jobs which even parliamentary rapacity would blush to ask from the Treasury are perpetrated with impunity in the silent realm of Mr Mother Country. O’Connell, we are told, after very bluntly informing Mr Ruthven that he had committed a fraud which would forever unfit him for the society of gentlemen at home, added, in perfect simplicity and kindness of heart, that if he would comply with his wishes and cease to contest Kildare, he might probably be able to get some appointment for him in the colonies.’

When the governor came out entirely ignorant of colonial conditions he naturally fell under the influence of those with whom he dined, and as all dealings with the British government were carried on through him, the Council and the officials had by this means the ear of the Colonial Office. A office-holding oligarchy thus grew up, with traditions and prestige, and known, as in Upper Canada, by the name of the ‘Family Compact.’ Nowhere did this system seem as strong as in Nova Scotia; nowhere did its leaders show so much ability or a higher sense of honour; nowhere did they endeavour to govern the province in so liberal a spirit. Yet it was fundamentally un-British and it was to be completely overthrown by the attack of a printer’s boy turned editor.

The leaders of the Halifax Compact in Nova Scotia were not only men of ability and integrity, they had also a reasoned theoiy of government. Their ablest exponent of this theory and the stoutest defender of the old system was Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Howe’s lifelong personal friend and political antagonist.

Haliburton was at once a scholar and a wit. In 1829 Howe published for him his Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia, a work which, in spite of its mistakes, may still be read with profit. In 1836-37 a series of sketches appeared in the Nova Scotian, which were reprinted with the title of The Clockmaker; or the Sayings and Doings of Sam Slick of Slickville. These were issued in volume form in 1837, and took by storm the English-speaking world. The book has no plot. It tells how the author and his friend Sam, a shrewd vulgar Down-East Yankee, ride up and down the province discoursing on anything and everything. Shrewd, kindly, humorous, with an unfailing eye for a pretty woman or a good horse, selling his clocks by ‘a mixture of soft sawder and human nature,’ so keen on a trade that he will make a bad bargain rather than none at all, yet so knowing that he almost always comes out ahead, Sam is real to the finger-tips. From Haliburton flows the great stream of American dialect humour. Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and a dozen others, all trace their descent from him.

But Haliburton’s real object was intensely serious. He desired to awake Nova Scotians from their lethargy. ‘How much it is to be regretted' he wrote, ‘that, laying aside personal attacks and petty jealousies, they would not unite as one man, and with one mind and one heart apply themselves sedulously to the internal improvement and development of this beautiful province. Its value is utterly unknown, either to the general or local government.’ It is in his writings that we find the best exposition and defence of the ‘Compact’ theory of government.

‘Responsible Government,’ says Haliburton, 'is responsible nonsense.’ Some one must be supreme, and as between colony and mother country, it must be the latter. The governor is sent out by the Colonial Office, and to that office he must be responsible. Were he responsible to his ministers or to the local House of Assembly, he might have to act in a way displeasing to the mother country, and subordination would be at an end. Responsible Government is a form of government only fit for an independent country. It is incompatible with the colonial status.

But not only was Responsible Government impossible for a colony ; it would, in any case, be a bad system for Nova Scotia, because it would be too democratic. A wise constitution must be, like that of Great Britain, composed of various elements. Such a mixed constitution Nova Scotia had. The governor contributed a bit of Monarchy, the Council a bit of Aristocracy, the Assembly a bit of Democracy. All had thus their fair share. Under Responsible Government, with all power in the hands of the Legislative Assembly, the balance would be overthrown and the democracy would be supreme. To Haliburton, control by the democracy meant control by the crafty, self-seeking professional politician, as he saw him, or thought he saw him, in the neighbouring United States. The people, well meaning, but ignorant and greedy, were at the mercy of the appeals to prejudice and pocket of these wily knaves. Government should be the affair of the enlightened minority, placed, as far as might be, in a position of security and freedom from temptation. This government would not be perfect, for ‘power has a natural tendency to corpulency,’ but it would be far superior to an unbridled democracy.

Speaking of the tree of Liberty, which had grown so splendidly in the United States, Haliburton makes an American say to Sam:

'The mobs have broken in and torn down the fences, and snapped off the branches, and scattered all the leaves about, and it looks no better than a gallows tree.’ Let the people attend to business, build their railways, develop their water-powers, their farms, and their forests, secure under the fostering care of the select few. ‘I guess if they’d talk more of rotations and less of elections, more of them ar dykes and less of banks, and attend more to top-dressing and less to redressing, it'd be better for ’em. . . . Members in general ain’t to be depended on, I tell you. Politics makes a man as crooked as a pack does a pedlar, not that they are so awful heavy, neither, but it teaches a man to stoop in the long run.’

Such, then, was the system and theory of government in Nova Scotia. Well defended as it was, it had one fundamentally weak point: the people of Nova Scotia did not want it. Howe had no great regard for the professional politician, whether in the legislature or in the village store. ‘Rum and politics are the two curses of Nova Scotia,’ he said. But he saw that it would be absurd to tell the people to let well enough alone, when, rightly or wrongly, they were discontented with their government. The way to put an end to hectic agitation was not to curse or to satirize poor human nature, but to remove the cause of the agitation.

From early days there had been struggles against the oligarchy. In 1830 the speaker of the House, S. G. W. Archibald, protested against an attempt of the Council to lower the duty on brandy. Apart from the evident desire of the great merchants on the Council to get brandy in cheap and sell it dear, he took his stand on the fundamental maxim that taxation was the affair of the people’s House alone, that there should be ‘no taxation without representation.’ A man is not necessarily a village politician because he lives in a village, or a great statesman because the stage on which he struts is wide. In this petty scuffle in an obscure colony were involved the same principles on which John Hampden defied King Charles. The Council gave way, and the old system went on as before.

Then, on the 1st of January 1835, a letter appeared in the Nova Scotian, accusing the magistrates of Halifax of neglect, mismanagement, and corruption, in the government of the city. No names were mentioned; the tone was moderate; but the magistrates were sensitive and prosecuted Howe for libel. At this time there was not an incorporated city in any part of the province. All were governed by magistrates who held their commission from the Crown. When Howe received the attorney-generaPs notice of trial, he went to two or three lawyers in succession, and asked their opinion. They told him that he had no case, as no considerations were allowed to mitigate the severe principle of those days, that ‘the greater the truth the greater the libel.’ He resolved to defend himself. The next two weeks he gave up wholly to mastering the law of libel and the principles upon which it was based, and to selecting his facts and documents. With his head full of the subject, and only the two opening paragraphs of his speech written out and committed to memory, he faced the jury. He had spoken before, but only to small meetings, and on no subjects that touched him keenly. Now the Court House was crowded, popular sympathy entirely on his side, and the real subject himself. That magic in the tone that gives a vibrating thrill to an audience sounded for the first time in his voice. All eyes turned to him; all faces gleamed on him ; he noticed the tears trickling down one old gentleman’s cheeks; he received the sympathy of the crowd, and without knowing gave it back in eloquence. He spoke for six hours and a quarter, and though the chief justice adjourned the court to the next day, the spell was unbroken. He was not only acquitted, but borne home in triumph on the shoulders of the crowd, the first, but by no means the last, time that such an extremely inconvenient honour was paid him by the Halifax populace. When once inside his own house, he rushed to his room and, throwing himself on his bed, burst into passionate weeping—tears of pride, joy, and overwrought emotion—the tears of one who has discovered new founts of feeling and new forces in himself.

On that day the editor leaped into fame as an orator. Early in the next year (1836) the House of Assembly was dissolved. Howe and his friend William Annand were chosen as the Liberal candidates for the county of Halifax, and were elected by large majorities. On. taking his seat Howe was at once recognized as the leader of the party, and without delay began the fight.


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